As Obama embarks on the third year of his second term, here are some of the ways in which Obama has begun to deliver on his promises of a more rational, less punitive approach to psychoactive substances. Obama's most significant drug policy accomplishment may be letting states go their own way on marijuana legalization. Even if our next president is a Republican drug warrior, he will have a hard time reversing that decision, especially given the GOP’s lip service to federalism.
The 43-year-old war on drugs had never seen such a barrage of opposition as it did in 2014, with successful marijuana legalization initiatives in several U.S. states, California’s historic approval of sentencing reform for low level drug offenders and world leaders calling for the legal regulation of all drugs — all of which cement the mainstream appeal of drug policy alternatives and offer unprecedented momentum going into 2015.
Smoking, growing, buying, selling or merely possessing cannabis is a criminal offence, according to America's federal government. Ask the states, however, and you will get almost 50 different answers. In 13 of them possession of the drug has been decriminalised, meaning that tokers face only minor penalties if caught. In 23 it has been legalised for medical use. And in four—including, following ballot initiatives earlier this month, Alaska and Oregon—cannabis has been legalised outright. In all only 22 states, fewer than half the total, continue to treat the drug as criminal contraband under all circumstances.
A report from Greenwave Advisors, a "comprehensive research and financial analysis for the emerging legalized marijuana industry," projects that legal cannabis could be an industry with revenues of $35 billion by 2020 if marijuana is legalized at the federal level. To put that figure in perspective, $35 billion represents more annual revenue than the NFL (currently $10 billion), and is roughly on par with current revenues for the newspaper publishing industry ($38 billion) and the confectionary industry ($34 billion).
It may be an off-year election, but it's a big one for drug policy reform... voters across the country will have a chance to accelerate the unprecedented momentum to legalize marijuana and end the wider drug war. In fact, there are more drug policy reform questions on the ballot this November than ever in American history. Here is an overview, starting with the highest-profile measures.
As Americans continue to embrace pot—as medicine and for recreational use—opponents are turning to a set of academic researchers to claim that policymakers should avoid relaxing restrictions around marijuana. It's too dangerous, risky, and untested, they say. Just as drug company-funded research has become incredibly controversial in recent years, forcing major medical schools and journals to institute strict disclosure requirements, could there be a conflict of interest issue in the pot debate? (See also: The real reason pot is still illegal)
On July 8th Washington became the second state after Colorado to offer recreational pot-smokers a chance to buy weed legally at a local store. Marijuana is still illegal in most of America. But there are substantial activities towards more liberal policies. In 23 states the medicinal use of marijuana is allowed and more states are considering legalisation. Oregon and Alaska will vote on legalisation in November; Floridians will decide on permitting medical use. President Barack Obama has chosen to take a hand’s-off approach to the issue of legalisation in Washington and Colorado. Yet if a drug hawk were to succeed President Obama in 2016, a clampdown on pot could well be revived.
The US Food and Drug Administration is reviewing the medical evidence surrounding the safety and effectiveness of marijuana, a process that could lead to the agency downgrading the drug's current status as a Schedule I drug, the most dangerous classification. "FDA conducts for Health and Human Services a scientific and medical analysis of the drug under consideration," FDA Press Officer Jeff Ventura said. "HHS then recommends to DEA that the drug be placed in a given schedule. DEA considers HHS’ analysis, conducts its own assessment, and makes a final scheduling proposal in the form of a proposed rule." (See also: Scheduling in the international drug control system)
Weed is legal in at least some form in 22 states and the District of Columbia. Most allow it for medical use only. Colorado and Washington this year enacted laws that allow recreational use by adults. But more than two dozen states are considering new or expanded marijuana reform legislation, including complete legalization for adults, medical marijuana, hemp use and decriminalization. Which are the next five states likely to legalize marijuana?
A Colorado marijuana innovation is changing the way lawmakers in even the most conservative parts of the country talk about cannabis and is poised to create a rapid expansion in the number of states that have legalized marijuana in some way. But many marijuana advocates view the new political campaign with skepticism, fearing it could halt their movement's momentum. Taken to its logical conclusion, medical marijuana could be a "box canyon" for broader legalization efforts.
Los Angeles politicians have struggled for more than five years to regulate medical marijuana, trying to balance the needs of the sick against neighborhood concerns that pot shops attract crime. Voters will head to the polls to decide how Los Angeles should handle its high with three competing measures that seek to either limit the number of dispensaries or allow new ones to open and join an estimated several hundred others that currently operate.
The Drug Enforcement Administration sent cease-and-desist letters to 11 medical-marijuana dispensaries because they are within 1,000 feet of schools or other prohibited areas. The DEA maintains that the crackdown does not signal a federal war on Washington state’s new legal-pot law. Despite Washington state’s new legal recreational-pot law, enacted by voter-approved Initiative 502, all forms of marijuana remain illegal under federal law.
A bill introduced in Congress would fix the conflict between the federal government’s marijuana prohibition and state laws that allow medical or recreational use. California Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher said his bill, H.R. 1523, Respect State Marijuana Laws Act of 2013, which has three Republican and three Democratic sponsors, would assure that state laws on pot are respected by the feds. The measure would amend the Controlled Substances Act to make clear that individuals and businesses, including marijuana dispensaries, who comply with state marijuana laws are immune from federal prosecution.
Looking at the recent spread of liberalized marijuana laws across the United States, it's hard not to think we're entering some kind of Weed Spring. The latest state to act is Maryland, where on Monday the state senate approved a bill legalizing medical marijuana by 42 to 4, sending it to Gov. Martin O'Malley, who is expected to sign it into law. Several state legislatures are considering relaxing their restrictions on marijuana. A majority of Americans now favor legalizing marijuana, and 65 percent of young people support legalizing it.
A number of businesses in the burgeoning U.S. cannabis industry are trying to enlist Wall Street's help. Some entrepreneurs see marijuana heading down the same path as Prohibition, which banned the manufacture, transportation and sale of alcohol from 1920 until it was repealed in 1933. "More and more people see the inevitability," said Brendan Kennedy, chief executive of the Seattle private equity firm Privateer Holdings, which targets cannabis-focused start-ups. "They see that the Berlin Wall of cannabis prohibition is going to come down."
The California Supreme Court appeared inclined to uphold municipal bans against medical marijuana dispensaries. Meeting for oral arguments, the state high court considered the legality of a ban on dispensaries by the city of Riverside. Several justices noted that the state Constitution gives cities wide policing power over land use and suggested that the state's medical marijuana laws have not undercut that authority. (See also: Marijuana dispensary curbs likely to stand)
A pro-marijuana group lost its legal battle when a federal appellate court ruled that marijuana would remain a Schedule I drug, defined as having no accepted medical value and a high potential for abuse. For years, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the National Institute for Drug Abuse have made it all but impossible to develop a robust body of research on the medical uses of marijuana. For a muscular agency that combats vicious drug criminals, the DEA acts like a terrified and obstinate toddler when it comes to basic science.
Marijuana will continue to be considered a highly dangerous drug under federal law with no accepted medical uses, after a U.S. appeals court refused to order a change in the government's 40-year-old drug classification schedule. The decision keeps in place an odd legal split over marijuana, a drug deemed to be as dangerous as heroin and worse than methamphetamine by federal authorities, but one that has been legalized for medical use by voters or legislators in 20 states and the District of Columbia.
Vigorous regulation of a thriving medical-marijuana industry in Colorado offers the best glimpse of what is coming to Washington when it launches its voter-approved social-use market. With continuous surveillance, bar-coded plants and strict financial background checks, Colorado's rules allowed capitalism to be unleased, creating an instant $200 million industry. With retail prices — averagingabout $7.50 a gram — among the cheapest in the country.